The Janáček Compendium: Nigel Simeone on the Delights of Documenting Leoš Janáček

When I first saw The Cunning Little Vixen as a teenager during a school trip to Düsseldorf in 1972, it was one of those occasions when I came out so elated – and so enchanted – that I knew Janáček was going to become an essential composer in my musical life. It was love at first hearing, and a year later I saw Katya Kabanova at the London Coliseum, conducted with sublime authority by Charles Mackerras. At about the same time, I was able to hear performances of the Sinfonietta, Glagolitic Mass and Taras Bulba conducted by the likes of Mackerras, Rudolf Kempe and the young Andrew Davis – and I was hooked.

Leos Janácek, 30th April 1926.
Image credit: Wikimedia

When I went up to Manchester University in 1974, I discovered much more Janáček, and, having been urged to tackle a subject that excited me, wrote an undergraduate dissertation on his operas. It was during my student years that I first met John Tyrrell, the greatest of all Janáček scholars, who patiently encouraged my intermittent work on the composer and in the 1990s we collaborated (with a Czech friend, Alena Němcová) on the catalogue Janáček’s Works.

It’s a rare pleasure to write about a composer whose music has enthralled me for so many years. Appropriately enough, the idea for the Compendium first came while chatting to my friend Jan Smaczny before a Prom performance of The Makropulos Affair in 2016, with Karita Mattila singing the 300-year-old heroine. Janáček seemed like a particularly good subject for the Boydell series – above all because no such book on him existed either in English or in Czech, despite a wealth of valuable literature.

After a visit to Brno with my wife a few months later to do some research in the Janáček Archive (and to seek inspiration from the city itself) I drew up a list of headwords for the dictionary which was revised and expanded over time. Dictionaries are meant to useful reference books – that was obviously the priority – but I also wanted this one to be enjoyable to read, and to offer some information that was new. The process of refining what could and should be included helped to give the project a sharper focus, though it was occasionally tinged with regret as some entries inevitably had to be cut in the interests of space (‘Janáček’s Dogs’ and ‘Xylophone’ were two such casualties). But at the core were entries on all of Janáček’s major works, his most important collaborators, performers, publishers, family and friends – including his three great amours: the two Kamilas (Urválková and Stösslová) and the singer Gabriela Horvátová. Places were significant to Janáček as well, not only his home city of Brno, but his native village of Hukvaldy and the spa town of Luhačovice, all three of which inspired him. Particular institutions also played a vital part in the dissemination of his work, above all the Brno National Theatre.

“This Compendium represents a book that has been conspicuously absent from the Janáček literature. It is quick and straightforward to find all of the important information on Janáček’s life and works, including key personalities and editions. Everything essential is here, supported by an admirably thorough and up-to-date bibliography. As always, Nigel Simeone’s work is of the highest quality, and this publication is a must for all musicologists, opera lovers and admirers of Janácek’s extraordinary music.”

– Dr Jiří Zahrádka, Curator of the Janáček Archive, Brno, Czech Republic

Janáček died in 1928 and one of the most intriguing entries to research was on radio broadcasts given during his lifetime: radio was in its infancy at the time, but the premieres of the Sinfonietta and Glagolitic Mass were both broadcast live, as were two of the operas (the Prague premiere of Vixen and at least two productions of Jenůfa) – though Janáček himself did not own a radio. He didn’t own a gramophone either, but the early recording history of his music (up to the time of the great explosion of records from the 1960s onwards), was another fascinating topic to write about: the first recording of any part of Jenůfa was Jenůfa’s prayer, recorded by Zinaida Jurjewskaja in 1924, a few months after she had sung the role at the Berlin premiere, conducted by Erich Kleiber and attended by Janáček himself.

After Janáček’s death, many recordings were made by musicians who had worked with him, lending them a particular authority. Among conductors, the most famous was certainly Otto Klemperer whose Berlin performance of the Sinfonietta Janáček described as the greatest he had ever heard, and Klemperer’s surviving recordings of the work from broadcasts in the 1950s suggest a conductor with a profound understanding of Janáček’s idiosyncratic musical language. Janáček’s pupil Břetislav Bakala unearthed the manuscript of the song cycle The Diary of One Who Disappeared going on to give its premiere coached by the composer. Bakala’s broadcast performance of the work from thirty years later is thus a particularly precious document.

Fanfares of the Sinfonietta, Janáček’s autograph score. Image credit: Wikimedia

Janáček’s friends and associates were not only musicians but also writers and artists, such as Alfons Mucha, the master of art nouveau who had auditioned as a boy chorister for Janáček at the Augustinian Monastery in the 1870s (he didn’t get a place, but sang in the Brno Cathedral choir instead). Thanks to the availability of Janáček’s correspondence online (an invaluable project by the Janáček Archive of the Moravian Museum we can trace their later friendship, and the visits they made to each other. Equally noteworthy was Janáček’s association with the architect Dušan Jurkovič – in many ways a kindred spirit, since both composer and architect brought together elements of Moravian folk culture with a spirit of modernism to produce work of enduring and sometimes peculiar originality.

Among other recent online resources, the website includes a large array of interesting material, particularly on Janáček locations, as well as a comprehensive catalogue of compositions, derived from our earlier book Janáček’s Works, but now in both Czech and English versions.

With such an array of music, people, places, and even objects (such as Janáček’s Hipp Chronoscope which he used for measuring speech melodies), it was a delight to work on the Janáček Compendium, and my hope is that it will be as useful and enjoyable to read as it was to write. The first person to read the final draft was my long-time friend and mentor John Tyrrell who died in October 2018, and the book is fondly dedicated to his memory.

Nigel Simeone is a widely respected writer and lecturer on music, with a lifelong interest in Czech music. The Janacek Compendium by Nigel Simeone was published in hardback by Boydell Press in March 2019.

The Janacek Compendium
by Nigel Simeone
Hardback / 9781783273379 / £45 or $74.25

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